Friday, October 31, 2008

Global Warming at the Icebox, Part 4

Of all the works in the Global Warming at the Icebox exhibition, Yi Chuan Chen's piece Shower stood out to me as the one in which I desperately wanted to ask the artist, "How did you make it do that?"

Chen's piece consists of a series of innocent looking fluffy white clouds suspended the ceiling in a section of The Gray Area at the Crane Arts Building. Sporadically falling from these clouds are needles (see photo above, by the Graphic Conscience).

In a simple and yet eloquent way, Chen evokes the dangers of acid rain, an issue which was frequently discussed in the 1990's, and despite its lack of press today, remains an ongoing environmental issue. As an artist, I cannot help but wonder how she constructed such delicate looking clouds that periodically drop needles without completely collapsing. It's very impressive, and I believe that the one of the greatest compliments one artist can give another is,"Really, how did you do that?"

A final note: Global Warming at the Icebox has been featured in other press. The Philadelphia Inquirer featured a brief review, visit here to read. Other coverage was provided by Libby Rosof and Roberta Fallon of Artblog, to read their reviews, please visit here and also here.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Conscience at the New York Art Book Fair

This past weekend was the annual New York Art Book Fair, organized by Printed Matter, held at Phillips de Pury and Company in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. It was held in association with the Contemporary Artist Books Conference.

The fair had two sections, a more mainstream commercial area taking over most of the gallery, and the "Friendly Fire" section, a curated selection of independent publishing by artists and nonprofit organizations. Browsing the fair, I found most of the books on view similar to the type that Printed Matter sells -- the glossy, offset book, made up either entirely of photographs or overly filled with text. They were books as containers, things to be owned, casually perused, and then put back on the shelf. Very few were created for the purpose of viewer experience.

Events like this have led me to determine that there seems to be two schools of thought on the artist book. There is the non-narrative, book-containers that I saw this weekend, and then there are the forms that are descended from traditional printmaking. This second variety often embraces the narrative, creating through the use of text, image, structure, and sequence a transformation, an experiential arc that engages and carries viewers through the book. It is this second type, once encountered, that is much more engaging. They are much more sensual, and once discovered, the book-container format is disappointing and lackluster in comparison. This was not true of all artists at the fair, such exceptions as Keith Smith, Scott McCarney, Dobbin Books/Robin Ami Silverberg, Purgatory Pie Press, and Visual Studies Workshop proved to be extraordinary examples of the medium.

Additionally, there were several representatives of the new field of art journals such as Cabinet or Parkett, those that take the form of the artist-journal collaboration, a hybrid of mass communication and art. I'm very excited to see this field growing, but due to my typical lack of funds I've never had the opportunity to subscribe. I hope such enterprises continue, and I wish them the best of luck.

The fair had some of the scariest bouncer-type security guards I've ever seen at a book-related event (see photo above, by the Graphic Conscience). It seems that art events are following this trend of trying to imitate the hip-hop scene of a nightclub. In the past, artists set the trends of what was cool, original, and new, now we are following the fashions set by others in order to get noticed. It is the whole creation of "scenes" that take away from the art. No longer are patrons buying works because they are engaged, inspired, uplifted, connected or because of some other feeling. Now they purchase art to hold a part of that scene, that imagined party lifestyle, to make themselves feel less inadequate. Perhaps the next generation will rebel against this, and find themselves returning to making art with consideration, moving away from the endless system of pure reaction. Or maybe, the party will just continue on.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Global Warming at the Icebox, Part 3

Third in our series on the Global Warming at the Icebox exhibition, we turn our focus to Elizabeth Mackie's sculpture, King Ortier and Little Siberia.

Mackie's piece can be seen to the left as viewers walk past Shai Zakai's Library. It consists of a number of large sheets of handmade paper suspended from the ceiling. Each sheet decreases in size from the viewer when standing in front of the sculpture. The sheets hang just below eye level, creating a cavernlike space beneath them (see photo above, by the Graphic Conscience).

Mackie's piece intends to suggest the changes global warming has wrought on the Alps, particularly the decrease in the size of glaciers. The piece itself is more evocative of caves or glacial tunnels. I could not help but wish that Mackie had been more cognizant of color. She has left her cotton/abaca sheets their natural tone. Instead, I would suggest considering pigmenting them, not strongly, but a delicate blue, maybe with a small addition of luster pigment. I feel that will have captured more accurately the shimmer of blue ice and snow that forms glaciers. Alternatively, this could have been achieved with blue light.

Handmade paper has a presence, and its stillness reaches out beyond its boundaries to draw viewers closer. As a material, it inherently evokes its natural origins of water and plant fiber. Mackie presents the raw, textured side of her paper to viewers, allowing us to marvel and its deckle edges and character. She states that the goal of the piece is to "symbolize the melting of the ice cap over the last century."

In response to this statement, I suggest that Mackie rearrange the order of her sheets of paper to better communicate this goal. Their current order leaves this suggestion a little vague as to whether they are shrinking or growing. Additionally, I think Mackie should consider hanging them below eye level, so that when viewers encounter them, it is clear that they are to indicate the waning of glaciers and not their expansion. However, it is an exquisite beginning of something that I hope grows to become an environment, something that draws viewers in and so when they depart, they understand what they are on the verge of losing.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

AFTER THE WORDS, James Rosenthal at Rebekah Templeton Contemporary Art

From now till November 1, Rebekah Templeton Contemporary Art is showing Famous Last Words, an exhibition of video, works on paper, and installation by James Rosenthal.

Rosenthal’s pieces explore ideas of text and image, or maybe I should say, text as image. The works on paper comprise of drawings with letters collaged on top, almost ransom-note style (see above, photo by the Graphic Conscience).

Rosenthal’s ideas seem restrained by adhering to the restrictions of typical rectangular formats. Even his installation, in which screen printed text appears on records and mirrors, felt confined to some sort of plop art version of printmaking. I see much potential but he seems held back by the two-dimensional substrate.

Rosenthal should let himself loose to collage directly on the walls of his spaces to create textual environments. However, I think he should avoid the clean white cube. I sense that if he has an awkward space with architectural character for him to respond to, the space will begin to directly embody his work, elevating it to another conceptual level.

As a final note, I’d like to respond to the question in the work above. As someone who was in Ushuaia, Argentina last year, it was very clear to me that Las Malvinas no se olvidan.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Global Warming at the Icebox, Part 2

Second in our series on the Global Warming at the Icebox exhibition, this post will focus on Chicory Miles’ installation, The Churning of the Milk.

Just past the entrance to the Icebox Gallery hangs a series of white organza panels, approximately fourteen feet high by four feet in width. Each panel has been dyed up to about shoulder level with a brown color. Miles, a native of New Orleans, evokes the waterlines that stained her city upon her return after Hurricane Katrina. As viewers make their way through this grouping, they come to a video. The video contains images of milk being agitated, sometimes superimposed with satellite imagery of Katrina, dead frogs, or infants breastfeeding. Once again, the opening din prevented me from hearing the accompanying sound component.

The video is based on a part of the Mahabharata, the tale of The Churning of the Milk Ocean. In this part of the story, several deities band together to churn the Milk Ocean in order to create an elixer of immortality. As a result, they also create a toxic potion. To paraphrase Miles, she saw in this story a parallel in how we as humans have tried to control nature, and how this attempt at control often leads to deadly affects, such as Hurricane Katrina.

As an artist, I am extremely drawn to work such as Miles’. The eloquence of raising the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina’s effects on New Orleans to a mythic plane gives viewers a feeling of witnessing the unfolding of a fairy tale. It becomes a visual art equivalent to literature’s genre of magical realism.

And yet I can’t help but wonder, does all this magic remove us further from the catastrophic proportions of what really happened? The real tragedy of New Orleans was not that the levees gave out, it was that our government turned its back on the city while people suffered. By elevating the account of New Orleans to that of the supernatural, does it remove us further from what really happened?

Sunday, October 5, 2008


From now until November 15, the Icebox Gallery in the Crane Arts Building is hosting Global Warming at the Icebox. The exhibition, curated by Cheryl Harper, Leslie Kaufman, and Adelina Vlas, is more commentary than activism, providing evidence of global warming but very few suggestions on how to combat it. Over the next several days, I will be recording my impressions gained during the opening on this blog.

One notable piece is Shai Zakai’s Forest Tunes – The Library. She, with assorted assistants, has created an intimate black box space in the center of the Icebox’s typically overwhelming white. This ongoing project of Zakai’s contains boxes in which she has collected leaves, seeds, twigs, and other natural detritus from around the world. Each box also holds an account of how the particular circumstances of how Zakai discovered their contents.

Across from the Library a video was running, its imagery either overly blurry or a bit too Photoshopy obvious for this Adobe nerd. There was also a sound component, but the roar of the opening did not let it reach my ears.

Going through her archives, I found myself wishing she had used better boxes, instead of just assorted shoeboxes painted black. While on one hand, I can respect her ability to reuse and upcycle, they seemed a bit unconsidered. This lack of consideration is particularly obvious upon opening the boxes, when remains of their former purpose, such as labels and leftover packaging material, stares you glaringly in the face, distracting from their contents. What might have been more appropriate would have been handcrafted clamshell boxes, appropriate to the size of their contents, made of recycled materials.

In the center of the installation is a reading table, with a card catalog of the Library placed in holders to be read. These holders are designed to allow readers to page through her cards, duplicates of every card that is placed in one of the boxes. However, I found these holders a bit awkward and a little too artsy. In particular were the multiple repeats of cards, or the cards in which text ran over onto the next card -- when these got out of order it created confusion for the reader. I think it would have been more effective to have simply spiral bound them into book form and allowed readers to simply page through them. They could even be placed on elevated stands so that their placement echoed the shape of the space, as the holders Zakai chose did.

Additionally, being personally familiar with book art crime, I can’t help wondering how many of these cards will be stolen by the end of the exhibition. Or maybe I should clarify, I wonder how many will be left?

Though her ability to integrate text, image, and reading isn’t up to par, her writing itself is incredible. Either taken directly from or based on the artist’s journal, the accounts of accumulating the Library chronicle her engagement with every leaf and twig in its archive.

One account in particular stood out for the Graphic Conscience. It was a description of her experience walking through a dying forest, a forest, to paraphrase her words, with a shorter lifespan than her own. Zakai reminds me that for many people, trees, with their ability to life longer than several human generations, are a connection to time itself. When we lose this connection to time, awareness of where we stand between the past and the future, everything becomes focused on Now. We grow shortsighted, egotistical, and forget that we are merely a small part in a larger continuum. Our lives, particularly for those of us who live in cities, are removed from natural cycles. We live and work in artificially lit spaces, relying on electricity rather than daylight for our illumination. Zakai’s words remind readers that our souls and nature’s souls are inextricably bound; harm to her is also harm to ourselves.